tick tock

What the heck is the Colorado school accountability clock? (And 14 other questions you might ask.)

On Thursday, Colorado’s accountability clock chimes for a dozen schools and five school districts that have failed to show enough academic improvement on state tests during the last seven years.

That means time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.

Before the State Board of Education begins this work at its Thursday meeting, we’ve rounded up some questions — and answers — about how we got here and how this all works:

What is the state’s accountability clock?

“The clock” is the colloquial term lawmakers, state education department officials and some school leaders use to describe the state’s school accountability law. In 2009, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 163, an update to Colorado’s original accountability law. The law defines how the state measures the quality of schools and school districts, reports it to the public and intervenes if they don’t improve fast enough.

How is school quality measured?

Student performance on state standardized tests in math and English is by far the biggest factor in the ratings.

The state calculates how much students learn year-over-year compared to students at the same starting point. This “growth data” makes up the lion’s share of the report. How many students are meeting the state’s expectations on subject matter — in other words, whether students are at grade level — is a lesser factor.

High schools and school districts also are evaluated on a school’s composite score on college entrance exams juniors take, and how many students graduate or drop out.

Schools can earn one of four ratings. Going from the highest to lowest, they are: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. School districts can earn one of five ratings: distinction, performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

What happens if my school or school district earns one of the two lowest ratings?

Nothing off the bat. But if a school or school district consistently earns one of the two lowest ratings for five years, the state is required to step in.

If schools and districts only have five years to improve, why has the state waited seven years to take action on these first schools?

The timeline is muddled for two reasons.

First, the law built in a sort of buffer year after the fifth strike that allows schools and the state time to plan corrective actions. Second, because the state changed the tests measuring student achievement, lawmakers in 2015 called a one-year time-out.

So how is the state going to step in?

The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.

For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:

  • Close it.
  • Hand it over to a charter management organization.
  • Contract with a third party to help run the school.
  • Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.

For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:

  • Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).
  • Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
  • Apply for innovation status district-wide.

There’s also an “other” option for school districts?

That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.

What is innovation status, and an innovation plan?

Innovation schools were created by lawmakers in 2008. When schools or districts apply for innovation status, they’re required to create a plan that does two things. First, they must request a series of waivers from local policy or state law they believe are blocking them from boosting student achievement. Second, they must detail the policies they want to put in place.

Schools often seek flexibility over hiring and firing practices, curriculum and the school district calendar (usually, longer school years or longer days).

Some members of the state board have raised numerous concerns about struggling schools seeking more autonomy through innovation. This is something worth watching as the board considers its options.

Can the state just take over schools like they do in Tennessee or New Jersey?

No. Colorado’s constitutional local control provisions prohibit the state from taking direct control of a school. The local school board still has the ultimate control over schools, even if they haven’t improved in five years.

The state does, however, have some leverage on school districts: accreditation.

What’s accreditation?

Accreditation is basically a seal of approval that signals to the community the school district is meeting all of the state’s expectations and is paying its bills on time. (Seriously, if a school district isn’t fiscally sound, the state can yank its accreditation. But that’s a different story.)

What if the local school board doesn’t agree with the state board’s direction?

This is where the law starts to get really murky.

If a school district with one of the three highest ratings has a school on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can lower the district’s rating to one of the lowest.

If a school district is on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can revoke its accreditation.

What happens if a district loses accreditation?

No one really knows. It’s never happened in Colorado before.

Several years ago, the department suggested that losing accreditation would put students’ high school diplomas in jeopardy. It also suggested the state could withhold federal funding. (It can’t withhold state funding.)

But the department has backed off that stance. Now, the department considers the stigma of accreditation loss as enough of a punishment.

What’s going to happen during the next couple of months?

Between now and June, the state board will meet with each school and district twice.

The first meeting will be a quasi-judicial hearing. The department will present their suggestions on what the schools should do, and the schools will have a chance to define their own destiny.

Then a month later, the board will make its ruling on changes the districts and schools should make.

Under state law, this all has to be done by June 30.

What happens after June 30?

The law is silent on how the department is supposed to monitor the schools’ and districts’ progress.

However, department officials and the state board are working under the interpretation that schools and districts are to continue receiving annual quality reviews. If a district or school makes enough progress to earn a higher rating, the clock is reset for them. If the district or school continues to struggle, the state could require additional changes.

Are school districts really going to go along with this?

Early evidence suggests yes. However, the state education department has requested extra money from the state legislature to pay for increased legal services if rumored threats of lawsuits from some school districts become reality.

Is there any evidence this will work?

State intervention is a hotly debated topic across the country. And like many things in education, the results are mixed.

One study in Tennessee found that the struggling Shelby County School District was doing a better job of improving schools under their control compared to those in the district managed by the state.

However, Massachusetts has had some success.

Both of these states had more authority than Colorado, so it’s not a direct comparison.

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: